ST. LOUIS -- For weeks, Mets manager Terry Collins has been imploring his team to play the game hard, to give maximum effort, to do all the things that winning teams do. Time and again, he has thumbed through his book of clichés. Finding no answers, he has flipped back to the start and thumbed through again.
Perhaps it was coincidence, or perhaps the message has finally gone through. One day after assuring themselves a losing record for a third consecutive season, the Mets completed a bizarre ninth-inning comeback at Busch Stadium, stealing an 8-6 game from the Cardinals and delivering a crippling blow to St. Louis' playoff chances.
"We go out and try to win every game," outfielder Willie Harris said. "It just so happens tonight, those guys are fighting for a Wild Card. We're fighting just to get a W."
The process began as so many unexpected rallies do: with a leadoff walk. This one did not appear so damaging, however, when Cards reliever Jason Motte induced the next batter, Nick Evans, to hit a would-be double-play ball to shortstop. Problem was, Rafael Furcal misplayed it, giving the Mets two baserunners with no outs.
Next came an out, a walk and another walk to force in a run. In came a new pitcher, Marc Rzepczynski, who served up an RBI single to Jose Reyes on his first pitch. Next out of the bullpen was Fernando Salas, who coughed up Ruben Tejada's two-run double to tie the game at 6.
With two outs, Harris finally capped the rally with a two-run single to give the Mets their first lead of the day.
"You've got to give credit to those guys," Motte said. "Those guys went up there and they took good at-bats, good approaches. They didn't go up there and swing at balls. Those guys did their job, too."
Staked to a two-run lead, Bobby Parnell entered in the bottom of the ninth, and thanks to a diving catch in right field from Jason Pridie for the final out, retired the Cardinals in order. Two outs away from shaving Atlanta's National League Wild Card lead down to a single game, the Cardinals instead fell two games behind the Braves with six to play.
Moments later, Braves first-base coach Terry Pendleton sent Harris a text message, saying simply, 'Way to go.'"
"I guess those guys over there are pretty excited about it," Harris said. "But we come here to win no matter what the situation is, and fortunately we were able to come through and get that win today."
For most of the afternoon, a Mets victory was hardly even a pipe dream. Following a 139-minute rain delay, the Mets went down in order on six pitches in the top of the first, before falling into a two-run hole in the bottom of the inning. Allen Craig's two-run home run represented only half the damage against Chris Capuano, who also allowed an Albert Pujols solo shot as part of four consecutive hits in the fifth. He did not finish the inning.
It was only after the game that Capuano became aware of the fact that earlier this week, the Red Sox attempted to trade for him in the midst of their American League Wild Card race. Had a trade been completed, Capuano -- a Massachusetts native and childhood Red Sox fan -- would have pitched one game in Boston but been ineligible for the postseason roster.
"It would have been strange," Capuano said. "It would have been a unique challenge to try to block all of that out and just try to make pitches."
Making pitches was a challenge both for him and the Cardinals all Thursday long. Though Cards starter Jake Westbrook was sharp early, retiring 10 of the first 11 Mets he faced, he issued four free passes and walked in a run in the fifth. It seemed inconsequential at the time, as did Tejada's self-made run on a single, an error, a wild pitch and a passed ball in the eighth.
But once the ninth inning hit, the Mets grew patient against Motte, who has now allowed runs in each of his last four appearances.
"Late in the game, we settled into what we do best, and that is make sure we get something good to hit," Collins said. "We came through in the ninth."
That Collins was praising his team was certainly a good sign for the Mets, who endured sharp criticism from their manager last week for purportedly "going through the motions." Whether their comeback Thursday was in response to that or a mere product of coincidence is anyone's guess. All that's clear is that the Mets won a game with significant implications.
In addition to spoiling what would have been another uplifting game for the Cardinals, the Mets ensured a chance to at least match last year's 79-83 record. They will need to win five of their final six games to do it, but such a feat is far from impossible.
Achieving it would at least eliminate some of the sourness from their third consecutive losing season.
"When people look at this record in December or January, they're not going to realize a lot of the things we accomplished here," Collins said. "Certainly we won't forget it, but our fan base -- we've got to somehow make sure they realize that this was a team that played hard all summer."